A History of 24-7 Prayer Down the Ages Part 1
First MILLENNIUM AD
Reeling from the events of the previous week, the disciples returned to Jerusalem, where ‘they all joined together constantly in prayer’ (Acts 1:14). They simply prayed and waited 24 hours a day, day after day in a particular room in Jerusalem, obedient to Christ’s command. Then, during the feast of Pentecost, God touched them with such unimaginable power that the church was born from their that 24-7 prayer room and the rest is history .
The early church in Jerusalem
Thousands of people suddenly found that they could walk right into the presence of God whenever and wherever they wanted. The curtain had been torn in two, making the Holy of Holies accessible to ordinary people in ordinary places. As a result, prayer rooms began to spring up everywhere, with astonishing results. The leaders of this thrilling movement continued to The apostles prioritize prayer above everything else (Acts 2:42) interceding wherever they were: and they would do it in one another’s homes, in Solomon’s Colonnade, in boats, on rooftops and even in jail.
We get a fascinating insight into how this praying community operated in the account of Peter’s arrest: James, the brother of John had just been executed by Herod so when Peter was incarcerated the stakes could not have been higher. No wonder “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (Acts 12:5). This earnest prayer was clearly a night-and-day reality because, when Peter was supernaturally released from four squads of armed guards and made his way to the place where they were gathered, he found the church deep in prayer even though it was the middle of the night.
On an earlier occasion, when Peter and John had been threatened by Caiaphas, one of the most powerful men in the land, their response had been to pray. We are told that “after they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (Acts 4:31) In Jerusalem we witness a community that proclaimed Christ continually and prayed without ceasing. No wonder the power of God accompanied them wherever they went.
The impact of this all-preaching, all-praying approach to the teachings of Jesus was, of course, profound. Within a few years Paul and Silas could even be accused of ‘turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6).
As the church grew, fierce persecution arose, scattering the believers across the Roman world. But, of course, as they fled they carried the gospel virus with them wherever they went so that the message spread quickly and the church grew in its wake.
North Africa and The Middle East: The early church (first to third centuries)
Persevering prayer continued to be the very heartbeat of the church for its first three centuries. In AD 250, Cyprian challenged his fellow African Christians to ‘be as vigilant at night as in the light of day’, continuing: ‘Let us not cease here (at night) also to pray and give thanks to God.’ Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 296-373) tells us that such seasons of night-and-day prayer were common by the church throughout the first three centuries of the Christian era .
Egypt & Rome: The Desert Fathers
By the fourth century AD, in spite of fierce persecution, Christianity had become an irresistible force within the Roman Empire so that, in AD 313 Emperor Constantine issued the ‘Edict of Milan’ outlawing the persecution of Christians and granting them Sundays as an official feast day. Constantine himself claimed to have converted to Christ although many people doubt his sincerity. We do know that from that moment on, Constantine raised his children as Christians yet he also chose to retain the title pontifex maximus, the chief priest of the state cult until his death. Whether Constantine’s conversion was sincere of politically motivated, it is sadly true that - as the statutory power of the church grew - so did the internal cancer of spiritual corruption.
Despairing of society and the dilution of the primal gospel, some radical believers (who came to be known as The Desert Fathers), retreated to the wilderness to devote themselves to unceasing prayer and an ascetic lifestyle of self-denial. It was from this unlikely environment of solitary prayer that the first missionaries were sent out to take the gospel to the pagan Celts of Northern Europe. Many of the Celtic converts, doubtless learning from their Fathers in the faith, gave themselves to 24-7 prayer, but more on the Celts later. First we must take a delightful interlude to introduce you to one of the great unsung heroes pioneers of 24-7 prayer...
Syria: Alexander the Sleepless (b. 355)
One of the most colorful characters in the history of 24–7 prayer is appropriately known as Alexander the Sleepless. Alexander was born to wealthy parents on a Greek island and became a Christian while studying in Constantinople (now Istanbul). He immediately gave away all his possessions, moved to Syria and joined a monastery. Here the young fire-brand grew increasingly But he got more and more frustrated with what he perceived to be a compromised expression of Christianity. and aAfter four years he could bear it no longer. Approaching the abbot he asked, ‘Are the things in the gospel really true?’ When the abbot assured him that the gospel was indeed trustworthy, Alexander challenged his superior: ‘Then why do we not put them into practice?’ When the abbot replied that ‘no one can possibly observe them’, Alexander flew into a rage, grabbed his Bible and quit the monastery for good.
And it really was for good: He began to gather other radically minded monks, all of whom gave their possessions to the poor and committed themselves to live simply and prayerfully. So many gathered around Alexander that he was soon forced to divide them according to their language: Romans, Greeks, Syrians and Egyptians. He mobilized these ‘tribes’ to pray continually in shifts (thus earning himself the nickname ‘sleepless’). The similarities with the modern-day, international 24-7 community are striking.
Alexander’s tribes prayed continually wherever they went: camped in the desert and in busy cities while ministering to the poor. When they entered cities they would often be assaulted and expelled by the ecclesiastical rulers who felt intimidated and exposed by the blatantly more radical lifestyles of Alexander’s prayer warriors praying troops. One scholar vividly depicts the way that:
‘Alexander’s troupe combined the charismatic dynamism of a mobile house of prayer with the potential menace of any well organized, hundred-man gang. It would have been impossible to ignore their appearance on the urban scene!’
On one occasion Alexander’s praying gang of ‘heavies’ may even have prayed 24–7 whilst on a boat sailing up and down the Euphrates river!
Constantinople & The Black Sea Region: The Acoemetae (fifth to ninth centuries)
It was probably Alexander the Sleepless who founded the monastic order of the Acoemetae in AD 400. We do know for sure that a single 24–7 prayer community in the Black Sea Region quickly grew into several massive monasteries around Constantinople. The Acoemetae were renowned for generations for their great learning and also for their commitment to perpetual prayer.
Switzerland: St Maurice (AD 515 - Present)
The oldest site of continuous worship in the Western world is a monastery in the town of St Maurice in Switzerland. There, for one and a half millennia, lovers of Jesus have conducted the laus perennis, a source of blessing upon Switzerland and a center of study and influence around the world.
The origins of this 1500 year prayer vigil are fascinating: In the third Century AD Caesar Maximian sent a Roman commander of the Theban (North African) legion to quell an uprising in the Alps, but on arriving Maurice discovered that these rebels were all Coptic Christians like himself – his brothers in Christ. As a result, Maurice and his legion famously refused to attack fellow believers, telling Caesar: ‘Emperor, we are your soldiers but we are above all servants of God . . . You order us to put Christians to death. Search no further, here we are!’
Systematically all 7,000 members of the Theban legion were executed by their own emperor for refusing to break their highest vow of allegiance which was to Christ the King. On the site of this atrocity a later king, Sigismund, established the monastery in AD 515 as a place of 24–7 prayer in memory of the martyred Theban legion.
Ireland: Bangor Abbey (558–810)
The Acoemetae continued to pray night-and-day in modern-day Turkey as did the Orthodox monks at St Maurice in Switzerland. And meanwhile a young missionary received a vision of angels in a verdant Irish valley. Here, in St Patrick’s Valley of Angels, a Christian community was duly established which grew into one of the most influential houses of prayer not just in Ireland but right across Europe. For most of its life, Bangor Abbey almost certainly prayed 24–7, continuing until the Vikings ransacked the community in 810, killing 900 people in a single day.
Bangor’s prayers powered a remarkable missions movement from Ireland right across Europe as far as Bulgaria and Ukraine in the heart of the Dark Ages. And like many other houses of prayer, Bangor Abbey became renowned as a seat of great learning and education.
France & Italy: Columbanus (AD 559–615)
Saint Columbanus was one of many missionaries educated at Bangor Abbey before being sent out from the furnace of that 24-7 prayer community to light similar fires throughout the Celtic world. Leaving his native Ireland, Columbanus carried the gospel to mainland Europe. Beginning in the Frankish Kingdom (modern-day France) he gradually moved down to Bobbio, Italy, establishing four great monasteries along the way. These artistic and educational centers of 24-7 prayer and mission had a massive influence upon contemporary culture. One king even begged Columbanus not to leave his kingdom until the population had been completely converted!
Columbanus’ Abbey at Bobbio (which incidentally went on to inspire Umberto Ecco’s novel ‘The Name of The Rose’) eventually housed one of Italy’s greatest libraries including the famous Antiphony of Bangor a gift from Ireland to Italy via Columbanus. The Catholic Encyclopedia records that: “in the midst of widespread turmoil and ignorance, Bobbio remained a home of piety and culture.” What’s more, “Through the efforts of St. Columban's disciples, increasing numbers of the [pagan] Lombards were received into the Church.” Irish Celtic artwork is evident in the church at Bobbio to this day.
Europe: The Order of St Benedict (AD 530 - Present)
24–7 prayer continued to influence European civilization for hundreds of years through men like Patrick, Columbanus and especially through the Benedictine monastic movement. Hundreds and ultimately thousands of communities built around the Rule of St Benedict, began praying publicly seven times a day, seven days a week even to the present day. The cultural impact of Benedictine monasticism was so profound that the founder, Benedict of Nursia (AD 480 - 583), is often regarded as the patron saint and founding architect of contemporary European civilization. Through him a rhythm of work, rest and continual prayer became the heartbeat of an entire continent.
In the next millennium the story of 24-7 prayer would leap from Europe to impact the whole world...
c. Extracted from Pete Greig; The 24-7 Prayer Manual (Cook Communications / Kingsway Communications)
Continues in Part 2: Second Millennium AD